Record: 3-9, 1-7 ACC
Overview: Expectations should have been higher in David Cutcliffe’s fourth season, but Duke elicited the here-we-go-again reaction in Week 1 when it lost to Richmond and gave the ACC its lone loss to an FCS program this year. Duke’s best hope at reaching the postseason this year began with a 3-1 record against nonconference opponents, but losses to Richmond and Stanford put the Blue Devils behind before they even got into the heart of the ACC schedule. A win at Boston College on Sept. 17 was reason for hope, but considering how BC’s season panned out, it wasn’t as impressive as it originally looked. It did, however, snowball into a three-game winning streak that had Duke sitting at 3-2 on Oct. 1 and the bowl outlook was suddenly much brighter.
The Oct. 1 win at FIU, though, was the last time Duke won a game. Duke’s season crashed with seven straight losses, and while three of them were by seven points or less, the Blue Devils failed to turn the corner in Year 4. Add it up and Duke was about 14 points shy of reaching a bowl game this year, but the win-loss column looks like Duke was much further away than some of the games actually indicated (Duke only lost to then-No. 12 ranked Virginia Tech 14-10). Injuries were a factor, but so was Duke’s turnover margin, which ranked No. 110 in the country, it’s rushing offense, which ranked No. 114 in the country, and its defense, which ranked No. 91 at 31.7 points allowed per game. Quarterback Sean Renfree was second in the ACC in passing average per game with 240.9 yards, but he struggled again with turnovers and had 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Still, he finished third in the ACC in total offense with 236.1 yards per game. Duke’s passing game wasn’t enough, though, to compensate for its struggles on defense and in the red zone.
Offensive MVP: WR Conner Vernon. He finished with 70 receptions for 956 yards and six touchdowns -- all team bests. Vernon matched the school single-season record for most games (9) with five or more catches while becoming the first player in ACC history to post multiple seasons with 70 or more receptions. Through three seasons, he has 198 catches for 2,675 yards and 13 touchdowns to rank second on Duke's career charts in both receptions and yardage and tied for eighth in touchdowns.
Defensive MVP: S Matt Daniels. He led all ACC defensive backs and was third overall in the league in tackles per game (10.5) after posting 126 total stops on the year. He added 4.0 tackles for loss, two interceptions , one caused fumble and 14 pass break-ups - the second-highest single-season PBU total in Duke history. Daniels finished his 46-game career with 324 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss, 27 pass break-ups, four interceptions, seven caused fumbles and three fumble recoveries.
Turning point: Duke led Wake Forest, 20-17, midway through the fourth quarter, and had first-and-goal from the 5-yard line, but three snaps produced just three yards and Duke booted a field goal to push its lead to six points. The Demon Deacons responded with what would be the game-winning touchdown on their next possession. If Duke, who had rallied from a 17-0 deficit, had been able to punch in a touchdown on that drive for a 10-point cushion, it may have been able to upend Wake Forest and push its record to 4-2 on the year. Instead, the loss dropped the Blue Devils to 3-4 and Duke did not win a game the rest of the year.
What’s next: Recruiting, recruiting, recruiting. If Duke is going to take the next step under Cutcliffe, the staff has lure in some better players. Cutcliffe has talked in the past about how recruiting has improved, and his current classes are faster and stronger, but Duke still needs to find one or two special athletes that can help the program win those close games, run the ball and stop the run.